Bathhouses can be a little scary from the outside. Are they clean? Are they dirty? If they’re dirty, is it in a good (sexy) way? Or in a bad (pubes on the soap) way? Are foreigners welcome? Will we be stared at? Do we care if we are? How do we know which ones are huge brothels and which ones are family places where we can get a long soak, a body scrub and potter around in pajamas until the early hours of the morning?
We visited three bathhouses to answer all that: a Japanese place out in Pudong, a Chinese one near Hongqiao Airport and New Star, one of the most popular Korean options, also in the west of Shanghai.
Let’s start with the Japanese, because it’s the newest and the one fewer people already know about. Gokurakuyu is this colossal place out in this huge industrial park area on a motorway in Pudong. Sounds pretty cozy, right? In fact, it’s the best bathhouse we’ve found in Shanghai. You enter into a spotless hall of eye-scouringly bright marble, hand in your shoes and receive a lump of wood in return.
Go to the back of the hall and receive a plastic wristband with your number on it. You’re then directed to a hatch where you collect your pajamas. There are six designs to choose from, plus a VIP pajamas option. It doesn’t matter which ones you choose, they’re all the same, except for the VIP ones, which offer you access to special VIP zones. We went for some fetching (non-VIP) mustard-colored togs.
Then you go into the changing room — men on the left, women on the right — and put everything in a locker: pajamas, clothes, phone, everything. By this point you’ll be naked. Then you head out to the baths area. Gokurakuyu's baths are segregated. Each (the men's and the women's) has four hot pools of different temperatures, all from 36 degrees to about 42 degrees, plus a cold pool (18 degrees). There’s also a long line of loungers lying under the water in another long thin pool, and these jets that pummel your body while you lie in the water.
It’s good etiquette to sloosh yourself off before you get in any of the pools, either by taking a shower or by ladling a few buckets of water over your head from a central tub. Then you’re free to go from pool to pool, steeping yourself in varying degrees of hot water. There’s one milky pool with some sort of special mineral water that’s meant to be good for the skin. Steam rises. Men chatter and slap themselves with wet towels. There’s lots of cocks everywhere. Cocks and balls just hanging right out there. But everyone’s over it. No one’s making a fuss. Sit in the hot pool then jump in the cold one or pour buckets of cold water over your bits. They provide the buckets. All good.
There's also a huge sauna, with a double-height ceiling and a TV on one wall. The sauna has a sort of modern-evangelical-chapel vibe, all pristine and bright. Everything’s really clean and well maintained. You can sit in there naked with some other dudes and watch CCTV, watch our government leaders tour some farms and inspect stuff. Good work all round.
Then there’s a steam room, and a place where you can get a body scrub (68rmb or 88rmb with some extra stuff they rub on you). But don’t worry about any of that. Instead, head through the double doors in the back of the room and you'll find an outdoor grotto area with two rock pools filled with steaming water, plus half a dozen cauldrons that you can sit in and cook yourself. They’re like those vast vats of baijiu that you sometimes see in the entrances of old-school Chinese restaurants, but they’re just overflowing with boiling water. Slop your damp ass right in one of those. This is semi-outdoors (there’s a kind of half roof structure over it), so the air is fresh and crisp and it sort of almost has the feeling of a hot spring in some ancient samurai novel. Plinky-plonky Japanese music plays in the background. Sit there and rule the day!
Gokurakuyu has a pretty solid family vibe. There are some kids running around. Most of the guests seemed to be Chinese. Didn’t see any tattoo’ed up yakuza. Shame.
After you’ve had your fill of boiling water and freezing plunge pools, you go back to the changing area and put those pajamas on. Then head upstairs where they have relaxation areas, places to sit and watch TV, play cards or hang out. The floors in different areas are heated to different temperatures. No one wears any shoes. You just lie around on the floor and doze. Separate rooms are heated to much hotter temperatures (up to 60 degrees), where you can lie out on stone and sweat. There’s also a cold room chilled to 18 degrees for us sissies who can’t take the heat.
Everything’s clean and there are fresh towels everywhere. No one really looked at me funny, even though I was the only pasty foreigner there. Keep going upstairs and they have a large restaurant with Asahi on tap (28rmb for 500ml), as well as Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Western food off a point-at-me menu (most dishes around 38-68rmb). Everything is paid for automatically from the plastic wristband you’re wearing.
Unfortunately, nothing in any of these pictures actually goes on at any of these three bathhouses.
Upstairs again and there are dark relaxation rooms where you can doze in recliners, and private rooms for majiang, plus some massage rooms for treatments. Once you’ve paid to get in (128rmb), you can stay there all day, wandering in and out of rooms, drinking, eating, hanging out with Pudong teenagers, more baths, whatever. At midnight, they kick you out, you change back into your civies and pay on your way out. Then you collect your shoes and return to the bleak and fully clothed world outside.
With food and beer, you’re going to spend about 250rmb per person, or more if you go in for some scrubs. Bargain. But note, this is way out in Pudong so expect to drop about 60rmb each way in a cab from People's Square if you're coming from Puxi.
Yeah, we know, this is a Japanese picture, not a Chinese one, but we couldn't find any pictures of Chinese bathhouses. This is in no way meant as any kind of sleight against our wonderful host nation.
Second up is Yundu, a hotel and spa close to the airport out in Hongqiao. This is the Chinese option. On the Wednesday afternoon we visited it was, except for maybe a handful of business men, very, very empty.
This is how it works: you go through the lobby to the reception desk and they hand you a bracelet and lead you into the changing area. The people here assume that no foreigner speaks Chinese so they pretty much show you what to do: a little ayi in an orange jumpsuit takes you to the locker and shows you where you should go. The ayi gives you a towel and slippers and a bathing suit because here there’s a communal bathing area, as well as a single-sex area, and you have to wear a bathing suit for that bit. The bathing suits they offer you are clean and packed in plastic. Or you can bring your own if you're worried about them having your size.
In the single-sex bit, there are showers, a massage room, a steam room and a sauna. The whole area isn't too big but it's very nice and clean. For all this bit you’re gloriously naked. When you leave the single sex naked area you have to put on a swimsuit and then you get access to a big, but pretty shallow cold water pool. There’s also a smaller salt-water pool, a fitness room and a range of hot pools. Then there’s a separate area with three Chinese medicine hot spring pools, one that’s looks a bit tea-egg-ish, a bubbly sulfurous-looking one, and one fresh minty one. Behind that, there’s a separate room with a big window looking out onto a small garden and outside, there’s another pool surrounded by bamboo.
In front of the outdoor pool there were speakers and a stage with a massive LED screen, so maybe they have some kind of entertainment going on there at weekends. Singing, dancing, Chinese what-have-you. That could be cool, sitting in the pool watching some awkward dance routine. However on our visit the only thing showing was a weird '80s snorkeling documentary on the big TV inside by the main pool. Nice though, to lie there, brains sleepily soaked, watching some people explore the oceans.
Drinks and snacks can be ordered from anywhere, even in the pools. The menu has juices, soft drinks, milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and of course cigarettes. All are quite reasonably priced. Just give your bracelet to the waiter to pay. Next to the pool they also have a few lockers for phones and valuables, or you can go nuts and leave your phone in the changing room. Imagine that! No phone. What a world!
There’s a restaurant on the second floor overlooking the swimming area. To get there, go back to the changing rooms, shower, dry off and put on a pair of snaz pajamas. About 150rmb should get you a decent dinner for two. To check out, go back to the changing room, snag the ayi and she’ll bring your shoes back and take you to the lobby where you pay. It's 128rmb for the basic entrance, plus whatever you've spent on food and massages. The place is open until 2am so you can hang out there all evening.
The major difference here is clearly that the pools are mixed. For the Japanese and Korean options that all tends to be segregated, so this is a good option for couples or if you want to go with a group. To get there, you can take the metro to Hangzhong Lu on the end of line 10 and then it's about a 15-minute walk to the bathhouse, or a 15rmb cab ride.
Yep, not Korean. More Japanese pictures. Sorry, they don't let us take photos inside the bathhouses. We'll have to make do with classical Japanese naked people instead.
Finally we have New Star, the Korean option. This is one of the best-known bathhouses in town, and it’s often really packed. However, it’s also improved over the past couple of years and the popularity is well-deserved. It’s out in Changning and draws a mixed crowd of Chinese, Japanese and many Koreans. The setup is pretty much the same as Gokurakuyu above: you go in, give them your shoes, get a bracelet and go into the changing area — girls on the left, guys on the right. They used to have this annoying system where you needed a guy to come and open your locker for you every time you wanted to get something out, but they’ve done away with that now and you just use your bracelet to open up a locker, then strip and go into single-sex bathing areas.
There are two large hot pools set up with TVs so you can soak and watch our dear leaders visit glorious tractor factories, plus a small cold pool to plunge in when you get too hot. There’s also a small steam room and a sauna, plus an area for getting body scrubbed (68rmb for the basic scrub plus 48rmb for each additional substance they scrub you with). The scrubs used to be much cheaper, like 48rmb plus 28 for each topping, but they also used to have these semi-aggressive scrubbers who’d come out and demand that you come in and have yourself scrubbed. They’ve gone now, and the atmosphere is more chilled.
The place is really popular with families and there’s lots of dad and kids in the bathing bit. If you’re a whitey like me, you get a couple of looks, but everyone’s pretty cool and minds their own business. There are also rows of sinks where you can shave and brush your teeth and groom and they give you free razors and toothbrushes. It’s a bit odd sitting there naked, grooming oneself with rows of other men. It feels primal, all these men sitting around, away from the presence of women, grooming and slapping their wet flesh. Once in a while there’s a bit of a hullabaloo as men exchange greetings and roar at each other. Best just to ignore that and just act like you belong.
After you’re through with all that, you get dry, put on your pajamas and go upstairs to the communal areas, where there’s a café, a cinema room where you can doze, a huge room of recliners where you can sleep or get a foot rub, and then lots of space for just sitting around on the floor and hanging out. There are also three heated igloos that you can go in and sweat for a bit. All the men wear orange pajamas and all the girls wear pink ones. Looking around this large room packed with happy, shoeless people wearing orange and pink pajamas, it feels a bit like you’ve joined a cult. Or some sort of futuristic society in a 1970s Charlton Heston film. I don't know... It feels pretty good. Sort of like the future was meant to be.
Upstairs there are private rooms and places to play majiang. The parents tend to go up there and do their parent stuff. The kids all sit around downstairs, play cards and natter. Sometimes at the weekends it's so packed that it's hard to find space to sit.
Downstairs behind the reception desk there’s also a pretty good restaurant with large glasses of Asahi served in chilled glasses (maybe 30rmb) and free kimchee. After a really hot sauna you can sit around in there, drinking chilled beer and eating pickled food. And that’s living, right there.
Last thing about this place that’s worth noting is they have a large, outdoor communal swimming pool. It’s never been open when we’ve been there, but in the summer when the cover comes off, that could be an excellent alternative to the city pools that get rammed on a hot day.
The spa’s 128rmb to get in and stay as long as you like. Food is pretty reasonable. Expect to spend about 250rmb for a few hours of bathing, a meal and a snooze upstairs, or 350rmb if you want to add in a massage or a scrub.
So, which is the best? All have their upsides, all are fun and none of them are particularly expensive. New Star is probably the most crowded. The Japanese one has those zen-like outdoor rock pools and the plinky-plonk music, and the Chinese is best for communal bathing.
Find listings and maps for Gokurakuyu here, Yundu right here and New Star here.